The German Generals
What might have been the last act of the Prussian military cadre to unite the defeated German people and make a last stand against Hitler and his cabal.
I start with the plot to kill Hitler in July 1944 motivated by the losing war already lost and the dreadful camps with their appalling inhumanity. These commanders were well aware of these two salient features in 1944. Some supported the plot – others did not. (Rommel himself distanced his dynamic and charismatic personality from this failed coup d`etat). I wish to consider their strategy and tactics in Africa, the Balkans and Greece, Italy, Poland the Eastern Front, France 1944 and 1945 and the Dieppe Raid, and the occupied lands not forgetting the Battle of the Bulge (1944) and Germany with the Battle for Berlin itself.
What do I hope to achieve by this work not of scholarship or research but simple analysis and deduction leading to greater understanding. In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi I seek to understand not be understood. My analysis is built on 61 years of a life with military history (modern) at the outset and always ruminated upon. Moreover, my life has centred upon my Roman Catholicism (precious little in these German Generals). I have a gateway opened to understand these Senior German military men by virtue of my Roman Catholic religious practice. Christ opens that gate to my perception and insight which I noticed in my teenage years in my personal out of class study of military history (Modern). This particular interest of mine was also observed and encouraged by my parents who enabled me to create my small modern military warfare library in the 1960’s. It will be for others to draw the ultimate conclusions from this working paper, but I will be coming to some important understandings. I do not seek to pillory modern Germans (I have written a little about present day Germany in some of my polemical essays – (June 2013 - February 2014). I leave modern Germany untouched in this work. I am interested in the Germanic military spirit of 1944 - 45 as personified in these Commanders. This work is historical not polemical. Yet I do seek to persuade the reader what I have written is right. What I do not seek to do in this paper is to exculpate or prosecute individuals or change policy and the constitutional framework in Europe. Thus I am no polemicist in this work as I was in my essays. I am fathoming the depths and charting the waters so others will pass safely through them. Who are those others?
There I will not say and I come back to my self-appointed historical task to comprehend these very senior German officers whose like will never be seen again – and they were wartime Generals. I will be aiming for the understanding of these German Generals but that does not mean condemnation and certainly not acquitting them of misconduct. Analysis involves getting up close to the subject which I will be doing. I do not yet know what the results will be but without doubt there will be some. I will be intending “to step into the boots” of these Wehrmacht SS and Luftwaffe, Generals and certain Admirals as well. By that process of combustion started by myself the fire and flame will be ignited.
“All our yesterdays’ lighted fools the way to dusty death” – Macbeth: Shakespeare.
That will be my motto along this path I have plotted for this working paper and no more.
The German Generals - Further Examined
We are dealing with pre-war Senior German Officers who were promoted during the war e.g. Rommel. They were an officer cadre and a cadre is like a cohort who goes into battle shoulder to shoulder. They rightly derived encouragement from each other and supported one another. Some, like Rommel, would have been junior officers in World War One. They were clothed in the uniform of the Wehrmacht and the SS.
The word “criminals” has been applied to the Nazis and that last appellation has been applied to all the German military officers and rank and file. Is that use of the word “criminal” appropriate to describe the German Generals 1944-1945? They were by and large obeying Hitler and his High Command who lurked in the Wolf’s Lair East Prussia (Rastenberg). Did following those orders on pain of death make them War Criminals? An atrocity is an atrocity in the Balkans, Poland, Italy and France. It does not cease to be an atrocity because it was ordered by Hitler. The crux of the matter lies in the German Military command. You could not escape carrying out those orders. However, the command from a German Field General – SS or otherwise – made the atrocity a military matter for a Wehrmacht Court Martial immediately, not Nuremberg later or the Hague International Criminal Court not yet created in 1944 - 1945, I believe. The Wehrmacht should have convened these Court Martials but this was quite impossible under Hitler’s regime built on terror and reprisals even against German opponents. The Will to resist Hitler was not there as the July 1944 plot’s pathetic denouement demonstrated. The only will power in the German Generals in 1944 - 1945 was to defend the Fatherland and maintain the cohesion and fighting qualities of the German military forces. It was not just that the plot of July 1944 was ill thought out and weak willed, the German Generals had capitulated to Hitler in 1944 - 1945. Am I asking too much in even entertaining the thoughts of such Court Martials? Very arguably yes. Was there ever any proper restraint through German military justice? I argue I have a point over this issue.
Firstly, Rommel feared German soldiers killing other German soldiers following a “coup” to unseat Hitler which he did not support. The Generals rightly abhorred anarchy. The Germans are a very obedient nation and this was the secret of Hitler’s hold over Germany. No one dared challenge him and the July plot was a puff of smoke. No Army can survive without military justice and the same applied to German Armies in the 20th Century. Even ordinary civilian criminal justice survived in wartime Germany – viz: the wartime criminal records of certain Allied POWs for appearing before German Courts of Criminal jurisdiction in the Second World War when on the run. If that civilian criminal jurisdiction was not stifled why was the Court Martial System emasculated? Because of the Nazi political hegemony, the SS and Hitler, the Fuhrer himself, who would tolerate no anti-Nazism. I say who was boss – Hitler or the Generals? Clearly, July 1944 shocked Hitler to the core but he bounced back harder than ever. The Generals involved (several) had gone for the jugular and missed the target. I argue they aimed too high. The low level Court Martials against German Military personnel for unwarranted and unofficial reprisals begun at that level would have been a start. No one was prepared to go down that road. Hitler would never change his tune – he was an arch tyrant and narcissist. The top staff generals – Keitel and Jodl did not take their own lives yet they were sentenced to death at Nuremberg. They were capable of changing the course of German Military history and thereby counter “attacking” against Hitler dictating to them. Clearly, those two most high ranking Generals and the Generals under them were not prepared to take this Court-Martial route to arraign Hitler himself, find him guilty, and sentence him quite properly to death and have that sentence carried out swiftly. Like it or not it was the German Army generals who permitted the horrors of 1944 on the Eastern Front and the camps and in the end the Battle of Berlin and for Hitler to have the luxury of death in the Berlin Bunker in 1945. They had the real power from 1944 - 1945 but chose not to exercise it for reasons of their own. Of course they could have Court-Martialled Hitler himself who always wore an army officers’ uniform. A Court Martial for Hitler like any Court Martial at that time was behind closed doors and the evidence would have been succinct and brief – Hitler had no case to argue.
What could Hitler have done? Called in the SS – the Wehrmacht Generals had far more troops than the SS and the SS police “both of whom were sparse on the ground. The Wehrmacht were loyal to their Generals on all fronts. The Court Martial route was lawful and would have commanded the support of the German soldiery and officers and the German people when successfully finished. The Army’s authority mattered.
The July plot like it or not was a criminal conspiracy and clumsily enacted but it nearly resulted in Hitler’s death when the brief case bomb exploded. Why did the Senior Generals in Germany lack the imagination and nerve for a quick, effective and orderly Court Martial of the Fuhrer resulting in his immediate execution? Hitler had no de jure right to rule Germany – he was an upstart and a usurper. He had no authority to dictate to the German Generals – they were most definitely not his Generals. Hitler was dragging Germany down dreadfully as the Generals in Germany knew. Those Generals kept no records of the inner workings of the July plot and its debates. Practically no reasonable minded Wehrmacht General would have dismissed the idea of a plot out of hand in 1944. It was properly a matter for the Wehrmacht commanders. The SS were fanatical for Hitler (the Waffen SS). Clearly, the German Generals of the Wehrmacht desired to overthrow the Nazi regime and install an interim military regime, make peace with the Western allies, and hold up the Russians pending reinforcement from Montgomery and Eisenhower to keep the Soviets back. That was the long term plan and the British and US Field Commanders would have had harsh words for Churchill if he obstructed such a long term objective after Hitler had been executed and the Germans had collapsed in the West. Churchill would not believe the Germans could overthrow Hitler. In one sense he was right but his implacable refusal to intervene in German Military matters concerning Hitler’s regime with these German Generals may have cost not only lives but quite probably a free Poland, East Germany and Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
It is always a mistake to do it “my way” - i.e. Britain & America alone in the West and Russia in the East. I am suggesting the German Generals needed a morale boosting promise of support from Churchill for this Court Martial (top secret) procedure and the expectation of an alliance with Britain and the US if the Court Martial succeeded. How much organisation would the proposed Court-Martial require? Secrecy and utter military professionalism would have carried the day unlike the foolish bomb explosion which was loud, inaccurate, unlawful and amateur not to mention putting Hitler in a good light as the survivor and boosting his own ego.
As far as the organization of the Court Martial was concerned it required Jodl and Keitel, so close to Hitler physically and in terms of military protocol, to agree or they would be told they would be Court Martialled themselves as they were at Nuremberg 1945 - 1946. They would have come in to line in all likelihood, once that momentum built. The very concentrated objective of Hitler’s Court Martial was vital without delay. A man like Lt. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg of outstanding stature and courage was the officer required, supported by high ranking generals, to authorise the judicial process. Maybe even Rommel, if it had been a Court-Martial rather than a bomb plot would have overseen matters. I cannot penetrate the circle of German Military Generals in 1944 within the German Army. They were truly redoubtable and united in their cadre. They would have Court-Martialled Hitler promptly and with efficiency if the consensus high level military opposition had decided to go for that option. They did not fear Hitler or the SS but the post Court-Martial scenario was not sufficiently clear cut. As R.A. Lamb Esq. has shown in the “Ghosts of Peace” (published by Michael Russell Publishing in 1987) Churchill and Eden did far too little to provide ideas, encouragement and planning for this opposition to Hitler. The July Bomb plot misfired with hateful consequences.
Court-Martial of Hitler instigated by Senior German Officers preferably from all three Services would have targeted Hitler much more effectively. Germany herself, if Hitler had been condemned by Court Martial, would have been truly uplifted and given new hope by her Admirals and Generals. She was a militarised nation in 1944.
I do not cast blame on Churchill, Eden or the German Army and Naval and Luftwaffe Commanders. History is history. The lesson is, go by the legal route – I don’t agree with the liquidation method – it is too risky! Moreover, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Even Hitler should have been given a short hearing, but he should not have been given the suicidal way out of May 1945 in the bunker. Justice was not done but the German Generals knew their duty yet only approached their best. What I have proposed is not fanciful. If the German Generals were prepared to countenance the July Bomb then why not a Court Martial for Hitler? The Wehrmacht were the backbone of the German Army and there would have been no massive troop movements required for this particular Court-Martial – simply sufficient men to back Stauffenberg who had the rank to chair this Court Martial. I submit the stratagem would have been handpicked soldiers properly informed of their task with a loyal Commander to command them. Hitler would be disarmed and arrested. He would have no representation on grounds of security and be permitted a short statement. The Hearing would proceed forthwith and last no more than 30 minutes in view of the great emergency, probably less. No one would know it was going on save the Tribunal. The evidence would be known without witnesses and oral testimony – it lay in Hitler’s public speeches all known to the Tribunal. The evidence spoke for itself – Res ipsa loquitur. The sentence and verdict would require no withdrawal from the court room by the officers to consider. The death by firing squad would follow straight away after the sentence was announced. The handpicked troops would have taken control of the Rastenburg East Prussian lair where Hitler resided with his coterie who would have been arrested lock stock and barrel with Hitler. A risky venture but “who dares wins”. It would have to be done by Germans not by non-German forces as a matter of dignity, propriety and safety.
One last word, the Bomb plot relied on the German military coming in to line after the Bomb had been set off and killed Hitler. Essentially, the Bomb and the Court Martial would have performed the same function equally within the Wolf’s lair. They both depended upon the sequel going the way of the opposition to Hitler. The difference lay in the poor leadership of the Generals which was corrupted by the foolish and token easy way out of the Bomb. Their true elite calibre would have been demonstrated in the stamp of the German Military Prussian cadre in the Court Martial procedure if adopted, which would have commanded obedience in all the cadre and thus throughout wartime Germany in 1944.
The second option, the most audacious, required the greatest organization, bravery and single minded professionalism. Make no mistake the German Generals wanted to curtail Hitler’s tyranny in 1944. They came close to ridding their country of this dreadful dictator and by legal means.
The Sequel to the Court Martial
I wish to pursue the hypothesis further. If there is any semblance of reality in my Court Martial proposition the aftermath must also be examined. In the immediate post-Hitler death scene and Court Martial in East Prussia, the German Army would loom large and Rommel would have been a leading light. With his charisma and aura plus his popularity with the British Eighth Army in Northern Europe, the possibility of a deal with Field Marshall Montgomery, his old adversary, would have become probable. Indeed, his son Manfred alluded to this scenario before his own death in writing that his father wished to make peace in the West. Of course with Hitler Court Martialled and deceased the danger which Rommel feared of Germans shooting Germans receded greatly. This would have been all the less likely with an Interim German Military government. Clearly, Montgomery would be instructed by London to demand at least an armistice in the West and Italy together with a corridor through Germany to Berlin for the link up with the Red Army who would be very jumpy at any deal between the “desert fox” and Monty. The United States would follow Churchill’s lead but Roosevelt and Churchill would have demanded a tripartite military government of Germany as its borders were intact in 1944. (Britain, France, USA).
As Germany’s Eastern borders had not been encroached upon by the Soviets in July 1944, there was a breathing space for the German Military government (Interim) to hand over Germany, as it stood, before the Anschluss and the invasions of Sudentenland and Poland to the Western allies for administration and occupation: That was total surrender in the West. Yet the German Army was still fighting in the East – was that Army of the Eastern Front to be disabled and let the Russians come flooding in to Eastern and Central Europe? I argue Churchill with hostilities in the West finished would have squared up to the totalitarian Stalin which the German Military Interim Government would have begged him to do. But Stalin had been Churchill’s ally since June 1941 and Churchill was the lead opponent of Nazism since 1938 and Munich. Churchill was no fool and the Yalta Conference came post July 1944.
The Court-Martial would have taken place in July 1944 on my hypothesis. Churchill was a resolute opponent of repression all his political life and even in Indian issues he supported autonomy. The ending of Hitler’s tyrannical reign was Churchill’s target and the Interim German government was giving him that long avowed aim on a plate. The Interim German Government could supply its Eastern Front from Germany but only with Churchill and Roosevelt’s consent. Churchill was a man to be advised by his trusted Commanders, namely Mongomery and Alanbrooke, whilst Roosevelt was of the same mindset, Eisenhower, Patten and Omar Bradley. All these Commanders were still with their troops in great numbers and power in France in July 1944. Not even Paris had been freed. Arnhem had not been tried by Monty. The war was being offered to these Allied Generals and being military men they knew their duty to liberate occupied Europe, West and East. They would have lost no time in moving in to the East and the Occupied Territories and facing Stalin on Germany’s border with Poland pre-war.
The Great War gave self determination to the continent of Europe and these Second World War Allied Generals were not going to sacrifice it to be ravaged by the dreaded Soviets. Germany would have been conquered by the Western Allies and honour demanded Poland and her neighbours be liberated in part at least. A resolute mind would have been required but these Generals; British and American were men of great honour and Churchill and Roosevelt would have followed their lead as the German people in July 1944, tired of war, would have deferred to the German Interim government lead by Rommel. The Allied Interim government would take over as quickly as the Allied generals, decided in conjunction with their German Military Interim Counterparts i.e. Rommel, Canaris, Stulpnagel (Paris), Rundstedt and Kluge (Normandy) and the Commanders in France (including Student: General) and Kesselring (Italy). The German Generals in the East would be guided by their comrade Generals in Germany post-Hitler. Keitel and Jodl would control the Eastern Front post-Hitler. Are we really to believe that Monty and Patten would come up behind the German Eastern Front Divisions and attack them from their Western side while the Red Army bombarded them from the East? That is unthinkable of these British and American Generals. Monty and Ike would have given Zhukov an ultimatum. You either stop fighting the Germans or we take over this Eastern Front and start fighting you ourselves to liberate Eastern Europe occupied by the Nazis then the Red Army namely Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The Balkans had been freed more or less by the maverick Tito. It would have been conventional fighting on the Eastern Front – non-nuclear. Both Monty and Patten were dead keen to go as far east as possible in the D-Day planning.
The scenario would be modified by a US/British requirement that when the Eastern Front had been taken over by Monty and Ike from the Wehrmacht all German troops lay down their arms. I do not think the German Interim Government would have objected. They wanted to save German soldiers lives above all else. After the horrors of the Eastern Front campaign this would be their priority. There is no glory in war and Germany had had more than enough.
The War Criminals: Clearly the German Interim Government would have cooperated to hand over these wanted men and women to the Allied Interim Government. Soon the German Interim Government would be disbanded. The vital humanitarian supplies would begin to arrive at German ports – relief at last for the hard pressed German civilian population and the persecuted in the Camps.
The Interim German Government would have served its purpose and the German people could breathe again.
The German Generals of 1944 - 1945 could not break clear of Hitler and disobey him with real thunder. They obeyed him to the ruin of Berlin. What was their motivation? A bond of kith and kin? No and not a bare military professional duty either nor patriotic fervour. The personal oath to Hitler ranked a poor second with them to their esprit de corps.
They had fought in two World Wars and on the dreaded Eastern Front (through Stalingrad) from 1941 - 1945. They had seen German soldiers and officers die in their droves against the terrible Red Army onslaught. They observed Hitler’s mad “never give an inch” policy which cost General Paulus his Army of 200,000 Germans at Stalingrad taken into captivity. Of course these Generals knew their “esprit” demanded the Court Martial for the jumped up Lance Corporal ruining Germany’s military might never to be seen again. Such was their spirit it was unquenchable and they fought fiercely with their loyal armies to the end.
The German Army, Navy and Air Force turned land force never mutinied in World War II. It fought to the bitter end and the Western Allies and the Russians had to encounter that resistance and overcome it practically to the last German fighting man when Germany had gone territorially. Why did the Germans not give up the ghost? Pride? No. Fanatical obstinacy? No. Pure love of the Fatherland and allegiance to the Fuhrer? In part true, but not the essence of the matter. The German Army and the SS had committed atrocity after atrocity under their Generals’ orders knowing the War was lost and ending with Nuremburg looming. There was no hope, but strangely these men fought for each other with no hope. The SS Commanders were under the Wehrmacht top Generals in battle. One man inspires the other to defy the inevitable. You have to keep the standard high by the Bearer.
The German Cadre of Commanders could not speak to each other or communicate under the pain of Hitler’s tyranny and wartime circumstances. They were a cohort in the Roman Army sense or a phalanx, but only figuratively and their men fought for those German Generals as the Romans did for their centurions, Commanders and Caesar himself. As Maximus Severus said to Caesar
“I am Commander of the Army of the North”.
One of the remarkable features was the refusal to give up in the rank and file soldiers in the German Army 1944 - 1945 particularly in Normandy and the East and Berlin. Their Generals commanded cohesion and great admiration and loyalty in these German soldiers and so fostered by these Commanders and officers. That was a priceless quality built on obedience, training, leadership and dogged determination.
Yes, they were downcast when captured in France in the Falaise gap in July 1944 but they were not relieved to be made captive and “happy”. Above all they had lost their Commanders and superior officers they held in such high esteem. They say the Germans did not fight well without their officers. True, I would expect that of soldiers so devoted to their Senior Generals and officers. The British and Americans have not been so tested in the 20th Century – maybe only President Johnson (Vietnam: US Army 1960’s) losing a war with a rising unacceptable casualty count and highly unpopular in the USA. Yet Johnson refused to give up the struggle from 1963 - 1968.
The German people amazingly never turned against their Armies and Commanders and rulers despite Bomber Harris’ repeated punishment of their cities and military industrial base. They would have turned on Hitler’s cronies if the German Generals had opened the door by the seminal Court Martial of Hitler himself and sentence of death carried out upon that arch dictator and villain. Germany was a selfish country in the 2nd World War or the camps would never have persisted. The answer to my conundrum lies in the paradox of that selfishness yet the preparedness to lay down their lives. The German Generals and their officers and soldiers did not fight for that “clown” Hitler but for each other. They went to the brink with the plot against Hitler in July 1944 and could have gone all the way with the Court Martial of the Fuhrer. But when the opportunity arose through Von Trott, Rommel and Stauffenberg and von Hassell and Bonhoeffer, the thinking was muddled because for that precise moment the audacity and will power was lacking. We shall never know the answer. They were brave conspirators in the best spirit. They paid with their lives as all good men may be called upon to do in the cause of liberty and conscience. May that always be remembered – Good military results are born of esprit de corps.
The assassination was preferred to military summary justice. The German Military Prussian esprit de corps has gone forever but the memory of the July Plot will never fade. The spirit of pure Germanic suffering lives on in all its dimensions in at least one heart and soul, that of R.M. Lamb Esq. and I an Englishman born and bred in the Roman Catholic Church of Cardinal Ratzinger.